In the cycle of the Church’s year we are now in the ‘Kingdom Season’. It lasts until Advent Sunday and features a lot of readings from apocalyptic Bible passages, with an emphasis on judgement and the end of the world. The season concludes next week with the last Sunday in the Church’s year – a celebration of Christ the King.
Sitting in Morning Prayer at York Minster during these days matches the appointed readings to the panels of the Great East Window. It is an experience that spans time. The Book of Revelations probably dates from the final years of the first century AD. The window was constructed between 1405 and 1408, and I ma sitting listening to one, and looking at the other, in the year 2022.
In some respects the window feels like a cartoon strip telling the story of the Book of Revelation. A way for people with limited reading ability to follow the Biblical account of the end times. The colours and depictions are vivid, with suitably grim and menacing monsters and angels variously inflicting several plagues. Each frame gives life to a passage from scripture, which can easily be followed with the excellent navigator website. Given the content of apocalyptic literature in the Bible, it is hardly surprising that it has enjoyed a very mixed reception. For George Bernard Shaw Revelation is “a curious record of the visions of a drug addict”. DH Lawrence hated it so much that he wrote his own commentary.
It is certainly true that outside the context in which it was written, the text is often puzzling and perplexing. When I did a course on the Book of Revelation in the 1980s, I recall being told that the text was meant to be heard – to be read aloud. Maybe it sits uncomfortably on the page because the visions and drive of the apocalypse is designed to be a crashing and pulsating narrative. The various sequences and repetitions suggest that this may be right.
In March 2020 many may have felt that apocalyptic events were unfolding in our own time. Perhaps there was an expectation that, however difficult, this was a trial humanity had to undergo before sunnier days would commence. Writing in the final weeks of 2022 it now appears that crises of major proportions are fact of life. Maybe there is something in the Book of Revelation that suggests an initial calamity precipitates subsequent disruptions? In choosing ‘permacrisis‘ for its 2022 ‘word of the year’, Collins Dictionaries is reflecting the challenge people are experiencing in attempting to return to turbulence of more familiar proportions. Along with the continuing lack of inter-governmental action on climate change, evidenced by the debates at Cop27, there is growing awareness of the plummeting diversity of species on the planet. It is certain that climate change and loss of biodiversity are connected issues. More and more of our planet bears the fingerprints of human involvement and, consequently, there is a vanishing number of true wildernesses in our world. On top of which, this year is likely to be the warmest on record for the UK.
Perhaps in the last 50 years we have become accustomed to a significant level of control in our economic and social order in the West. This is an exceptional experience for any human society, but there is plenty of compelling evidence to speculate that some fundamental issues may overpower us. In this respect at least, we have something in common with those who first heard the revelation of St John the Divine. Individually there is only a small amount we can do to meet the permacrises of the present. It requires a bigger and more international solution.
The apocalypse literature of this season encourages us to consider the shape of the future if we don’t change. The books of Daniel and Revelation suggest that we cannot predict the future as confidently as we should like. The dizzying imagery of these visions remind us that we sow today what we shall reap tomorrow. Both in personal faith and actions of collective responsibility, we cannot ignore the consequences of our actions. Apocalyptic literature should focus our minds and stir our spirits to work for a future where there is hope for our world.